Saturday, December 27, 2008

the search for bigger pictures

So where do you get your ideas from? This is the question most guaranteed to set a dedicated author's eyes rolling. I mean, duh, creative people pluck them out of everywhere, don't you know: the aether, their hair, their arses, their dreams, the TV, the headlines, other people's work. Ideas are, after all, the easy part of fiction. It's how you parse and render them that makes a difference, yeah?

Actually, I'm starting to think it’s a very good question. If ideas are so plush and plentiful, how come there's so much tedious fiction out there? Why are slush piles choking with the same old, same old? It can't be because people can't write – everybody writes these days. Everybody blogs, word-processes, chats, emails, texts. Everybody has all the tools they need to be a writer and getting published is about as difficult as falling off a log so long as you're not too fussed about a publication's provenance, credentials and readership.

We've all heard that old adage 'write what you know'. Well, that's a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you're just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren't that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don't know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.

Which is pretty much what the last three years have been all about for me. Not intentionally, mind you. There was never a cunning plan aimed at improving the quality of my prose. I didn't perceive great gaps in my imagination. I just knew what I knew, wrote what I wrote, dug what I dug, etc. Some of my output was deemed worthy of publication, but I wouldn't have said there was anything special about any of it.

And then I changed jobs. I found myself working for a small educational publisher, producing eighteen books a year on an assortment of health and social justice topics. Eighteen serves of research and production: lather, rinse, repeat. Going over and over the text in preparation for publication, the intel contained rattling around in the backroom of my psyche, groaning and churning away like a big old machine. Things I thought I knew, things I know I'd rather forget. Multiple versions of the same stories, source documents, white papers, green papers, opinions and statistics. Sites, both reputable and outré, trawled for content, the duds, mutants and miscreants briefly squeezed, then tossed back over the side. Ten years as a media monitor never educated me quite like this because electronic media morphs into one almighty jabbering voice. These books feature many and multiple mouthpieces. Headlines are advertisements. They're selling something, be it gossip, news or a state of mind. Behind the headline is where the trail often begins.

The internet is a vast and plentiful ocean resplendent with tall ships and betentacled horrors. Search terms fed through Google Advanced bring up many a seceded realm ruled by Pirate Kings and Voudoun priestesses; buried treasure nestled amongst Commonwealth fact-sheets and intergovernmental reports. There is no gatekeeper because there is no gate. Only peepholes, millions of them peering inwards at the boiling tide. Oh my god, it's full of stars is right, my friend. I challenge you not to find something worth writing about in there.

When I look at a timeline of my own published work, I see a distinct correlation between the point at which my stories took a turn for the interesting and the date I began my day job. It's a linear timeline, so perhaps it could be argued that my writing simply improved with practise. I, however, see more than coincidence. The press I work for publishes dark titles: Juvenile Crime, Indigenous Disadvantage, Child Poverty, Consumerism, Resilience and Coping Skills, Natural Disasters, Amphetamine Use, etc. We did a book on Happiness and Life Satisfaction once. Couldn't sell it. Nobody wants to know about the good stuff.

All this murk has been seeping into my head. The food I eat is farmed with suffering, my clothes manufactured in sweatshops, my chocolate harvested by child slaves; I wipe my arse on old growth forests; I eat the dead flesh of tortured and mistreated animals. My lifestyle is unsustainable, my carbon footprint the size of a Yeti's. Indigenous countrymen live in third world poverty; Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be murdered than myself. Forty-five per cent of Australia's 100,000 homeless are children. Yeah yeah, you're thinking, I know about all of this. I read it in the paper and heard it on the news. But do you feel it? Does it change you? Does it all stay embedded in your head? Each time you learn one of these facts, do you attempt to adjust your life accordingly in a pathetic and pointless attempt to make it better? Do these issues coagulate and ferment? Does anything become of them, or do they pass undigested through your memory like intellectual psyllum husks? Do you now write dark fantasy and horror when once you wrote about… stuff? 'Cos I do.

Something to think about, maybe.


graywave said...

Hey Cat, nice posting, plenty of resonance. Just two things to mention in response.

First is, I have a split personality online. One me is blogging as a writer, talking about my struggles and successes, being sane and sensible (editors like that, I hear). The other me has a blog where I rant on about injustice, politics, religion, social change, the price of printer ink, and the stupidity of Tesltra. Ranting keeps me sane and the Web is my pressure valve.

The other thing is about where the ideas come from. My take is that this is the wrong question. It should be: why do the ideas persist? Why do writers reify them? I did a post on the subject on my sane blog.

Cat Sparks said...

see, if I were to separate my writing from my ranting... there'd be nothing interesting going on in either court!

TansyRR said...

Hi Cat!

Thanks for coming to visit with your awesome rant! Do you think 'write what you care about' is more useful a suggestion than 'write what you know'? I agree that once we start ranting through other outlets, our fiction loses out - maybe blogging is bad for the fiction writer in that sense. Except for the pesky keeping us sane thing.

Cat Sparks said...

yep, write what you care about. That's the trick I reckon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cat,

Loved this. I actually think writing what you know can be a problem. It tends to turn a story into a lecture which becomes boring. Write what you care about is much closer to the bone.

I believe part of the problem for new writers is they don't see the difference between having a good idea and having a good plot. I've read heaps of work that features a great idea, but no discernible plot. As the mother of five kids I know that the average 4 year old has a hundred ideas a day but rarely can they tell a coherent story. And so it is with new writers. We don't have to teach them about finding ideas, we have to teach them how to find the plot that links several ideas together.

But that's just my opinion.


Lyn Battersby

Cat Sparks said...

Yep, Lyn, I agree. And the linking of ideas is an art form in itself -- one requiring an almost supernatural sense of subtlety at times.

Satima Flavell said...

Thanks for a thought provoking post, Cat. But here's a thought - what are you doing about those clothes made by third world labour and that huge carbon footprint? All the ranting in the world is meaningless if we don't put our money where our keyboards are:-)

Anonymous said...

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Cat Sparks said...

Hi Satima,

The problem with putting your $ where your keyboard is, is where do you draw the line? Three years of trying my damnedest has left me with extreme compassion fatigue, made me a very boring dinner companion and has not resulted in anything resembling a change to anyone or any thing. You may have greater success -- I wish you luck.

Satima Flavell said...

Mm - you're still in a family situation with a living to earn, which makes it hard. Being on the pension has made me pull my horns in, for starters, but it's helped me be more environmentally conscious as well. Because I don't have to answer to anyone else, I can eat simply, be downright mean with electricity and as I don't drive I have to walk a lot:-)

My big one is plane travel. I've flown to Perth and back three times in the last two years and just before that I went to Europe. Played havoc with my carbon footprint!